Twitter and social media have become both a boon and a trap to members of the press. Just recently, media pundit Roland Martin was suspended indefinitely from his post at CNN because of a tweet he sent out while watching the Super Bowl. During one of the more popular commercials featuring soccer star David Beckham modeling underwear, Martin tweeted:
If a dude at your Super Bowl party is hyped about David Beckham’s H&M underwear ad, smack the ish out of him! #superbowl
It didn’t take long before people on Twitter spoke up and accused Martin of advocating violence against gays. GLAAD asked that he be dismissed from his post at CNN and, though it took more than a week, CNN eventually conceded partially and decided to suspend Martin.
But Martin is by no means the first person who works for a media company that has let an irreverent tweet get them in a sea of trouble.
In the middle the “Linsanity” surrounding rising basketball star Jeremy Lin last week, Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock tweeted out something that he thought was a joke and was blasted by the Asian American Journalist Association until he issued a half apology. He wasn’t suspended, however. The Jeremy Lin saga perhaps makes it even more noticeable how careful media pundits have to be with their tweets as not everything over the past two weeks has been above board.
And last year, Cleveland Plain Dealer sports writer Tony Grossi lost his job as a beat writer on the Cleveland Browns when he called the owner of the Browns “the most irrelevant Billionaire in the world.” on twitter. Many other similar incidents have occurred around the country.
Big, corporate owned newspapers like the Plain Dealer sometimes have fixed policies in place regarding inappropriate tweets. But what happens when an inappropriate tweets or social media comment comes from a writer at a smaller entity like a neighborhood blog or tech blog that doesn’t have such a policy in place? For example, what if the tweet came from someone wrote writes for a hyper-local site such as Phinneywood or the West Seattle Blog?
Justin Carder, who heads the popular Capitol Hill Blog, says that the Seattle Independent Advertising Network which CHB is a part of does not have any social policy in place. However their situation is a bit different.
“We’re small and lean enough that everybody involved is an independent entity,” he says. “So it’s really a business issue for us. We expect the people we work with to do what is best for their business. If they don’t, it’s their resources that they sink.”
I asked Sarah Stuteville of the Common Language Project if we’re at a place now where even the smaller, independent blogs and publications like hers should have a social media policy for their writers. “It makes sense to have a [social media] policy that’s public and transparent,” she said. “It shows that you’re thinking about it and engaging your audience and being honest in how you’re dealing with this.”
Interestingly enough, she admits that currently, Common Language Project does not have a such policy in place and isn’t sure what good it would do for an operation their size. Such is the complexity with small online publications having social media policies.
“We should have policies,” she concedes, “but at the same time, I wonder if we’re not at a point where it’s a wild west out there and so many things can go wrong that what policy can you possibly come up with except tell everyone to simply use their best judgement when they use social media?”
Stuteville is right.
In an email, John Cook, cofounder of Seattle tech blog Geekwire, offered a similar response. “We are a two person editorial shop, so we don’t have a corporate policy per se. Here’s what I’d say: Just use common sense when Tweeting.”
That’s fair. And it’s hard to imagine either Cook, his partner Todd Bishop, or the overly professional crew of writers that are currently posting on Geekwire ever committing such a faux pas like Martin’s homophobic mishap, but anything can happen.
Stuteville mentioned during our chat that, from what she’s seen, you’d probably be surprised at how few media outlets out there actually have a policy in writing.
At the IN-NW Conference last week, Sharon Pian Chan (pictured on the far right) of the Seattle Times said that many larger media companies like the ones she works for don’t have hard social media policies in place yet. She suggested other companies sometimes avoid putting such policies in writing because they can be used in court [e.g. in a wrongful dismissal suit] and it’s easier to address these problems as they arise. As an aside to this, David Boardman, Executive Editor of the Seattle Times, says that the paper does at least have guidelines so that they’re reporters aren’t flying blind.
“We do have guidelines,” he sent yesterday evening via email. “They were drafted by a committee that included both management and staff. They are not overly prescriptive or restrictive, but lay out best practices for the use of social media in journalism — both in distribution and in news-gathering — as well as some ethics questions to consider before you post.”
As Stuteville mentioned during our conversation, having a blanket social media policy in place to cover all potential incidents isn’t easy to do. For the record, we here at Flip the Media don’t have a strict policy on social media for our writers either, and quite a few different editors have access to tweet from our @flipthemedia Twitter handle.
But certain publications have managed to create and amend their policies for reporters around the usage of social media. Sky News in London recently came out with an aggressive memo to it’s reporters restricting them from tweeting any story that they did not write themselves. It’s essentially to stop them from tweeting anything they see from a rival publication and to save their own butts in case the information is incorrect. The recent email to staff said:
“So, to reiterate, don’t tweet when it is not a story to which you have been assigned or a beat which you work. Where a story has been Tweeted by a Sky News journalist who is assigned to the story it is fine, desirable in fact, that it is retweeted by other Sky News staff. Do not retweet information posted by other journalists or people on Twitter. Such information could be wrong and has not been through the Sky News editorial process.”
Now this makes sense and, while it’s has less to do with slanderous tweets and more about having a uniform policy as a company regarding only pushing stories that are your own via social media, at least it’s something.
UW Communications department head David Domke, who worked for years as a professional journalist, thinks that publications not having any policy, written or verbal, regarding social media, is akin to “handing a teenager the keys to a car without providing driving lessons.” Essentially, at some point given the sheer size and scope of today’s social platforms, everyone is set up to fail if they don’t have some guidelines. Even with the the recent Whitlock and Martin gaffes you can be sure there’s worse to come. Let’s just hope that those who operate smaller blogs or independent news sites are prepared to deal with a social media foul-up if and when it happens with one of their writers.